Based on the book by Walter Lord, the Titanic strikes an iceberg and sinks as less than one-third of the passengers are saved.
The huge ship Titanic is launched with great ceremony in 1912.
On a train Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More) reads to his wife Mrs. Sylvia Lightoller (Jane Downs) from a newspaper about the launching of the largest ship in the world, and they laugh. They are joining the ship at Belfast.
In an office clerks go over the provisions for the ship. A man brings in the list of the passengers with 332 in first class, 276 in second, and 708 in steerage that is with the crew a total of 2,208.
A wealthy couple with trunks of clothes depart from home for the ship in motorcars. Another couple leaves in a motorcar, and a poorer family uses a cart they hope to sell before leaving.
Lightoller tells his wife that he will bring her garters from New York. They laugh and hug and kiss.
On April 10 people board the Titanic.
Two days later a couple dines, and they notice how steady the ship is.
On the deck of a ship an officer brings more ice warnings, and officers think it is drifting down on Labrador currents.
Captain Edward John Smith (Laurence Naismith) of the Titanic reads a message of the ice warnings from a steamer ahead of them.
The S. S. Californian sends ice reports to all ships.
On the Titanic people in steerage sing in English while some speak in other languages. They dance in their crowded room.
In first class an orchestra plays as people dine at elegant tables. Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire) tells about her husband who became rich from silver mines in Colorado.
An officer visits those shoveling coal and asks if there are any problems.
In the telegraph room Harold Bride (David McCallum) and Jack Phillips (Kenneth Griffith) get a message from the Titanic. The keep track of ice reports.
Lightoller says the temperature is dropping and asks a man to watch the water tanks. On the deck Captain Smith asks Lightoller if there are more ice reports and asks what the temperature is. Lightoller says it is almost freezing. Lightoller orders them to watch for ice.
A man on the Californian calls that ice is ahead. They order the engines to stop until day so that they can see them. Evans sends a message to the Titanic that they are stopping for the ice.
In first class Lightoller is asked about the full-speed trial tomorrow, but he expects a certainty.
In second class three drunk men tell a waiter they are looking for their bunks, and he directs them.
Lightoller learns that Rogers is winning a lot. He tells a man to warn them about betting on the ship. Lightoller sees the doctor who goes into a room and tells a man that the ship may be falling to bits. Lightoller gets in his bunk in his pajamas.
An officer tells his captain in bed that a big ship is approaching them. The captain says he must find out who it is.
On deck frost-covered men see an iceberg dead ahead. They pass the word, and they order the ship to turn. Below deck workers see water coming in from the iceberg gash.
Captain Smith comes on deck and orders them to stop engines. In the engine room a man says they ran aground. Water is knee deep there, and a man says they have the pumps working.
An officer tells Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) to join the captain on the bridge. There Smith tells him he thinks the ship is badly damaged. Andrews goes down to look.
Men on a lower deck play soccer with ice.
Lightoller turns on his light and gets up.
Andrews sees the water coming and tells the chief to get the men out of there as soon as he can.
Bride in his pajamas asks what happened and says he can’t sleep.
Andrews tells Captain Smith there is a long gash below the water-line that is flooding the compartments. Smith asks what is the answer, and Andrews says the ship is going to sink. He says it can’t float with all five compartments filled because that will cause the others to fill also. Smith asks how long she will last, and Andrews says about an hour and a half. The captain says there must be no panic, and they agree to be careful what they tell the passengers. They have over 2,200 passengers, but they have only room for about 1,200 in the boats. Smith says the Board of Trade did not anticipate this situation.
Smith goes to the bridge and tells his officers that they must abandon ship. He orders First Officer William Murdoch (Richard Leech) to muster the passengers, Lightoller to prepare the boats, and Fourth Officer Boxhall to call all hands to boat stations. Sixth Officer Moody is to help Lightoller. Two others are to remain on the bridge. He says everything must be done quietly and calmly. He will give the order that the boats are to be loaded with the women and children.
Lightoller orders his men to act without panic in getting the boats ready.
Captain Smith orders the telegraph operator Phillips to send out a distress call at once. When he contacts the ship nearest to them, they are to come as fast as they can. Smith gives him their position.
Men on the Californian see the steamer that also stopped, but they did not respond to a call.
They try to wake up the telegraph operator, but he continues to sleep.
Phillips says the closest ship he can find is the Frankfurt 150 miles away. Bride suggests he use the new call SOS because there must be someone nearer.
Stewards knock on doors and tell people to get life vests on.
Lightoller orders a bag of bread put on a boat, and a man says every lifeboat must have a skipper.
Andrews orders a maid to put on her life-belt so that everyone will see her wearing it. A rich woman says everyone knows that this ship can’t sink.
Philips keeps trying the telegraph.
On the Carpathia an officer talks with Sparks. The telegraph operator gets a distress call from the Titanic and rushes it to Captain Arthur Rostron (Anthony Bushell) who is in bed. He orders the ship turned around and orders him to tell them that they are coming as fast as they can.
Bride takes the message from the Carpathia and tells Captain Smith that they will be there in four hours. Smith asks about the ship they can see. Bride says they have not heard from them, and he wonders if they have a wireless.
Lightoller tells the captain that the portside boats are swung out, and Smith orders him to fill them with women and children.
On the Californian they see the steamship firing rockets and wonder why they would do that.
Some of the women do not want to go without their husbands. Most women get in the boats.
Men playing cards notice that the ship is listing.
In the engine room men are working the pumps.
Andrews orders the officer Martins to go into all the spare cabins and get the life-belts and blankets and distribute them. A man asks Andrews how serious it is. Andrews says the ship has about an hour to live, and he advises him to get his wife and children into the boats. They realize that they will end up in the same boat.
An aristocratic couple are concerned they may be delayed in getting to New York, but Robert advises his wife to do what the captain says. They get the children out of bed.
Water is pouring into the engine room.
In first class the orchestra continues to play.
On deck people are in life-jackets, and Molly Brown persuades a woman to wear one. Another woman insists on getting her jewels out of the safe.
In steerage people are behind bars and are told to wait for the orders to open the lower deck.
An officer tells workers to keep the lights on, and he says the Carpathia is coming and will be there soon.
The Carpathia captain orders them to give him all the steam they can, and he orders preparation for the rescue effort.
Lightoller orders the boats to be lowered one at a time, and a man complains he is going too slowly. The first lifeboat with women and children is lowered to the sea.
On the Californian they notice the steamship has fired six rockets. He tells the captain in bed about the six rockets. He thinks it may be company signals. He tells them to call her with the Morse lamp and ask them. A man with field glasses says she is listing, but the other man says that is because of her angle to them.
A man drinks in his room.
Andrews tells a lady that she must get in the boat.
Lightoller sees the water below. He tells an officer that the water is up to E deck, and he must force the women into the boats.
A few people from steerage find their way up to second class. The drunk man tells them they can go any way they like.
A crying woman does not want to leave her husband. Robert’s wife says she is not going, and he tells her she must obey him. Lightoller tells her that the children will follow. Robert kisses his children goodbye, and they get in the boat with their mother. Lightoller carries his sleeping son into the boat. Lightoller orders the boat lowered, and it goes down.
The steerage people pass through a kitchen and go through the first-class dining-room.
Most steerage people are kept back by a man who says they will be told when they can go up.
Lightoller makes a man get out of a boat.
A woman goes back to her room for a piggy bank and leaves her jewelry case.
A man puts a pin on his coat.
One man leaves the card game, and they talk about the tight corner they are in.
Phillips tells Captain Smith that Carpathia is making 17 knots and will be there at 3:30. Smith says that is too late and tells him to try to reach someone else.
Captain Smith orders a man to signal in Morse code that they are sinking and to have their boats ready.
A screaming woman is carried by men to a boat. The small group of steerage people have arrived, and Lightoller has the women get in a boat.
A young woman in a room tells her husband they will surely let them take one bag. He says not everything they have is there.
Molly Brown calls to Lightoller that they have only one sailor in their boat. Lightoller lets a yachtsman go if he can swing down on a rope. He does so.
The Titanic is slowly sinking. Mr. Strauss refuses to go before the other men, and his wife decides to stay. A young man tells his wife that that woman is older than she is. One woman says that on the other side gentlemen are going with their ladies.
Bellboys ask an officer what they are to do, and he tells them to put out their cigarettes.
Lightoller says no men will go until all the women are gone.
In his room a lord says the life-jacket hurts.
An officer lets a few men fill up a boat.
A man uses an axe to break through and go up the stairs.
A wife cries as she says goodbye to her husband.
Another rocket is fired. From the top deck a boat is lowered that is not full, and others below notice it.
Finally the order comes to let women and children go up to the top deck, and they crowd through the stairs and halls. On the top deck they see that only four boats are left and look around.
Captain Smith sees the last rocket fired, and he looks at the ship in the distance. He prays, “God help you.”
A man asks a woman to send his letter to his sister, and she takes it as she gets in the boat. He talks with a man who says he intends to get into a boat. As a boat is being lowered, a man gets in. They stop the lowering but then continue.
Phillips tells Smith that some ships are asking questions or telling them to come toward them. Smith says they will not be able to send much longer.
The Carpathia captain receives the message that the Titanic is sinking, and he says it will be another two hours before they get there.
People are panicking as the women from steerage board the remaining boats. Lightoller shoots his gun and tells them not to panic. A man jumps into the sea.
On a boat Molly Brown shares her fur with another woman. A sailor says they should not stay too close to the ship as it goes down.
An officer says only one of two women can fit in this boat. The younger one goes. Lightoller says they have only two inflatable boats on top that they will have to float as the ship goes down. He asks for spare hands to help prepare the two boats.
Part of the orchestra is on the deck and plays to soothe their nerves.
Andrews asks Mr. Guggenheim about his life-jacket, and he says it was uncomfortable. The ship is becoming less level. Andrews tells the young wife that there may be a place for her in one of the boats. She insists on staying with her husband, and she asks if Andrews has a wife and children. She has no children and says that makes it difference. He advises them what to do as the ship sinks. They should wear white so that they will be seen. She says they will save themselves.
An officer orders everyone out of the engine room and to go up top.
All remaining passengers are crowded on the top deck.
Captain Smith tells Phillips to abandon the cabin for they can do no more. Smith goes out, but Phillips keeps trying. Bride says it is no use because the power is gone. A man comes in and takes something, and Phillips knocks him out.
Lightoller directs the launching of the last two boats. One falls, and he tells them to leave it because of lack of time. Water floods the lower deck. Captain Smith shouts through a megaphone,
“Abandon ship! Every man for himself.” People panic, and some men climb down ropes. Others jump into the water. A few musicians stop playing but then decide to play, and a man sings, “Nearer My God to Thee.”
The Titanic is going down. Lightoller on the last boat sees it sinking. People move to the high end of the ship, and some jump into the water and swim to the overturned boat. The drunk man throws wooden chairs into the water. He goes inside and asks Andrews if he is going to try. Andrews does not have a life-jacket and sits in the dining-room.
An old man carries a lost child. Men climb up to the highest place on the ship they can get to.
Lightoller is swimming in the ocean and gives orders.
Only the stern of the ship is in the air, and the angle has increased. More men take their chances in the cold water. Others struggle on the sloping ship. Lightoller orders them to swim clear of the ship. Those in the boats watch the ship sinking. A steam tower breaks off. People pray as the ship sinks more quickly. Finally the stern goes under water that foams.
On a boat Molly Brown says they can take drowning men on the boat; but the sailor says they should not take on any more, or they all may drown.
On officer tells his boat that they have room for about twenty more. On another boat the passengers discuss whether to take more people on board. They realize they will not live long in the cold water.
Some people hold on to the overturned boat while others lose their grasp.
On the Californian an officer notices that the big steamer cannot be seen. Another officer tells the captain that the steamer is gone. The captain asks the time, and he says it is 2:45. The captain orders the time entered in the log and goes back to sleep.
A man on the overturned boat pushes men away with an oar out of fear of being capsized. Lightoller swims to the boat and orders them to get organized. He climbs on to it and says it will not sink yet. Later the man on the boat stand in the middle as Lightoller advises them to lean left or right. They pull in the drunk man as they keep their balance. They see a light ahead, and Lightoller blows a whistle. The sailor on that boat directs them to row toward them. A woman complains that a man is smoking a cigarette. Another woman says she is so cold.
The Carpathia is steaming and looking for the Titanic. They see a flare, and the captain orders a rocket fired.
On a boat they see the rocket. Lightoller handles the tiller. They hold up burning paper and a hat on fire in order to be seen. They see another rocket. Lightoller says the things that would have made a difference. If they had been going slower, they could have avoided the iceberg. They should have had more lifeboats. He says they were too sure. He thinks he will never feel sure again about anything.
On the Carpathia the rescued passengers listen to a prayer while standing in a crowded room. Lightoller gets a message and goes out.
On deck Lightoller talks with the Carpathia captain who says they will go on searching for more survivors. He says they have 705 survivors on board. Some of those in the boats were dead. Lightoller says they lost 1,500. A man brings a message from the Californian which asks if there is anything they can do. The Carpathia captain says they can do nothing, but everything humanly possible was done. They see furniture floating in the ocean.
An epilog reports that now lifeboats are always available for all, and an international ice patrol guards the sea lanes in the North Atlantic to keep them safe.
This film is considered perhaps the most accurate dramatization of this ship disaster with little fictionalization. Much was based on the account by Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller who learned not to be sure of anything. Perhaps this event that astounded so many foreshadowed the outbreak of the Great War in Europe 28 months later after nearly a century without a big war in Europe and that cost many more lives than the sinking of a luxury liner.